The Skill of Life

One reader, who blogs over at Adam’s Task, has this to say in defense of poetry:

Poetry compels one to take a delight in language and in the single word, to have a feeling for subtle shades of sound and meaning, for the nexus of structure and syntax, and for the vast historic associations which lie in any developed language whereby even the most trivial instance or mode of Being can be made ostentatious, can be made to demand of us that we ponder it deeply. It requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself. This is why we should memorize it.

It reminds me of something W.H. Auden said reflecting on the life and death of W.B. Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.” Yep, that’s why. It’s “a way of happening, a mouth.”

I like especially this: “[Poetry] requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself.”


I wonder if that might be why, when I myself was in high school, I used to hate poetry. I thought it was always trying to be difficult and confusing on purpose— that poets were playing a sort of maddening game with me in which they made their meaning as hidden as possible.

And by this time, I had already read lots of huge complex novels, books on religion and philosophy, and all sorts of convoluted prose. But there was something about poetry that was very annoying and elusive to me.

Many of my students feel that way now. “Ms. Shea, this is so hard.”

It wasn’t until college that I finally began to love poetry–and only then, after I was forced to learn about it.

But perhaps in high school I found poetry so confusing in part because I was not “translucent” to myself– I was still a such mystery to me. Moreover, I was still so new to my own historical context that the rich allusions so essential to most poetry, to millennia of human thought and art, remained quite opaque to me.

These “vast historic associations which lie in any developed language” elude most high school students and, unfortunately, more and more of the general adult population as well. Our culture is so caught up in what is easy and accessible–perhaps because technology has made so many parts of our lives easy and accessible–that poetry (which is neither) does not resonate with us.

Although I don’t like making logical fallacies about “the good old days,” I am inclined to believe that previous generations weren’t so annoyed by poetry. (Hence the older practice of making kids memorize poetry in school–from the time of Homer until 60 years ago). Life itself was very difficult and inaccessible for most of the human beings who have ever lived–so why should language be any different?

Dr. Gregory, one of my favorite professors at the University of Dallas, is a masterful teacher of poetry and of lyric in particular. She has this to say about the importance of poetry in the life of students:

The study of the lyric [poetry] teaches something quite other than critical thinking, and certainly something distinct from common or conventional notions of the interior life. In the context of a common culture that so brutalizes and trivializes the life of affection, desire, and reflection, lyric poetry offers a kind of counter-terrorism training of the heart and mind. (“Lyric and the Skill of Life”)

“A kind of counter-terrorism training?”

Yes- because poetry helps us to become vulnerable. We have to let go of our supposed power over language and allow it to have power over us.

“Something quite other than critical thinking?” But isn’t that what the Common Core — indeed, most educational standards– love to emphasize?

Yes, but poetry isn’t really about “critical thinking.” It’s more about critical feeling— the ordering and shaping of what is not really quantifiable or nameable in the usual sense.

Which is why, perhaps, terms like tone and mood are so essential to poetry. Poems develop our emotional intelligence, if we let them. The skills we use to read people’s faces, understand their feelings, anticipate their desires are the same skills we need when we read poetry.

Again, Dr. Gregory:

The lyric [poem] performs continually a sense of the risk and danger of reading.  The challenge in teaching lyric is to make its dangerousness felt, to allow its edge to cut.  At the heart of learning, one might say, is the capability of always acknowledging that condition of dereliction out of which alone we can know the preciousness of what we love.  The lyric puts us in this danger: that is its irreplaceable value within education. (Ibid)

Poetry, because it does not submit to normal conventions of language or our expectations about literature, invites us to take risks. In high school I really hated this– but since then my illusions about the conventions and expectations I used to have about life have begun to fall away. Poetry does not seem difficult on purpose any more– it is difficult because life is difficult. It is confusing because life is confusing. It is strangely beautiful–or ugly–or elusive, because life is all of those things.

That’s why there are Great Poets as well as mediocre ones. The Great ones are able to reflect or imitate, in writing, something of the mystery of human life. The mediocre ones try to explain the mystery away.


2 thoughts on “The Skill of Life

  1. Well said. Thank you for the lovely mention and also for, what I am sure will be, the resultant blog traffic.

    Just to add Plato’s two cents lol. For Plato, a poem was a linguistic reflection, or image, or a psychic disposition. It is essentially a moral rather than a linguistic construct; formulated in language, it is realized by being imprinted in the soul of another.

    Odd, but interesting, I think.

    God bless

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